I’ve missed you
Every Astran-orbit, I make the light-years’ journey back to see you. I file the paperwork, rearrange my schedule, pack and bring my children with me. We endure the cold of hyperspace, the lingering headache and nausea. And now we’re standing on your doorstep, in the cool Earth spring.
The door opens. My stomach lurches. You look so much frailer than before.
But your face lights up when you see the children. You spread your arms. “Grandma’s missed you,” you say as you hug them. You and I do not hug. Touch is awkward between us.
You’ll never know how it is to travel to a distant star. To stand dizzy under a burnt orange sky, four moons giving light above. To feel the gene-mods reshaping your lungs, your blood, so that you may breathe the alien air. To undergo the Kairos training and mods that allow a person to see though time.
I’ll never know what it’s like to be you: a single mother on Earth. Desperate and angry in the last days of Empire. You moved from country to country in search of a better life. You clung to your roots, your food, your language, even as you encouraged me to abandon them all, to seek a new life among the stars.
We both know loneliness. But we never speak of it to one another.
We’re in the same house again, and I feel the future blooming between us now, branching again and again into countless paths. I’m not supposed to use my Kairos training to look at them. I’m trained to look at wider swaths of time, the collective actions of millions. To seek the major branch points that determine a government’s fall, a galactic war, or a genocidal plague. There’s too much chance and chaos in an individual timeline—a forecaster is overwhelmed.
I’m not supposed to look; it goes against all training and ethics. Yet I feel our futures shimmering between now. What I might or might not say to you. What you might say back. The illness that might kill you within the next few months, or over the next ten years.
I hand you a cup of tea. I see your hands shake, then steady.
We drink together in the pale morning light, and say nothing at all.
I’m proud of you.
I’m forty-six Earth years old, yet I still long to hear those words from your lips.
You nearly say it to my children. I watch you snuggling with them on the couch. My youngest shows you a game popular on the Astran home-world. My older one guides you through one of her projects, an immersive composition of song and light. “Good job!” you tell them both and clap. You’re soft with them, in a way you never were with me.
I’m sorry for the silence between us. For the years I stayed away, the messages I never sent. The bitterness that I hold even now.
Are you sorry, too?
Time slips, and I see the futures fanning out before us. You walk slowly down the stairs, but with double-vision I see you fall: blood on the floor, your skirt twisted around your legs, my children crying. I see you collapsing in the kitchen while we’re away, dying alone. And then I see you as you are now, frail but alive; it’s several years in the future; we’ve returned for our regular visit, and you’re smiling as you hold out your arms for the children.
I see a future in which you and I reach out to each other. In which we drop our barriers of pride. We speak without criticism or judgement. We speak from our hearts without fear.
My control is slipping. Emotions will do that: fear, uncertainty. I shouldn’t see these personal timelines at all. On Astran, someone would notice; my teammates would activate the mods to stop it, to keep me focused.
You taught me not to show fear. To hide all weakness, to keep it inside. Straight back and blank face when I walked past the occupying soldiers. No tears no matter what bullies at school did. No hint of vulnerability for others to exploit. You taught me, most of all, to hide weakness from you.
But that never made the weakness go away.
I know what my Kairos teachers would tell me: accept the uncertainty of all futures. Identify the root fear that muddies my vision now. Accept it. Accept and let go. Let these visions fade.
Or face that fear. . . and do what I can to resolve it.
I love you.
Futures branch and branch, an infinite array crowding out the present.
An atom randomly decays. An electron leaps energy states. A coin is flipped, a die cast.
There’s always the element of chance in what happens. And for human futures, there’s always the element of choice.
“No, Mom, sit down!” I say. You’re trying to make lunch for me and my kids. You’re wincing, and I can tell that your hip hurts again.
I know that in the days leading up to this visit, you’ve been pushing through pain to make things perfect. You cleaned the house. Bought gifts for the kids. Filled the kitchen with treats. When I walked in, I saw a package of my favorite chocolates on the table. Sweet custard buns beside them. Pork dumplings in the fridge, folded and ready to be cooked.
I remember all the times you pushed through pain to keep going, and to push me in turn. The day our house flooded, the nights you cried after my father left. When the last plague war swept the city, and you gave me water even as you must have been burning up; I remember you brushing the sweaty hair back from my eyes, wiping my face with a wet cloth. Your voice singing softly, shakily.
I hear you singing now with my children.
All the times we hurt each other, the things we screamed. Your words that bit and made me feel so small.
Our futures spread out before us, this moment splintering again and again, chance and choice irrevocably entwined.
I clear the lunch dishes. Sunlight pours through the window. My kids are quietly playing, and you’re sipping tea.
As I walk past, you touch my arm. Just one, brief pat. Your face is peaceful, the old edges softened and worn. But when our eyes meet, there’s a hint of a questioning sadness in your gaze.
You drop your hand. We look away. The moment passes.
My spouse doesn’t understand my relationship with you. “I love you,” he tells or messages me every day. He comes from such a different family, and from a culture where “I love you” is said freely, easily, as casually as speaking about the weather.
The future is infinite, but with each ticking second possibilities are foreclosed. I watch the timelines narrow. I know now what choices we’ll make. There are words we’ll never say. There are distances too great, after all.
I love you.
We will never say these words aloud. But in every timeline I can see, we know it’s true.
This story originally appeared in Daily Science Fiction.